Hundreds of South Korean schools closed as MERS virus outbreak spreads

Students wear masks during a lesson on MERS in Seoul

South Korea has closed more than 700 schools to help prevent the spread of the MERS virus after the deaths of three people.

Authorities have been criticised for struggling to contain the problem – with 35 confirmed cases and more than 1600 people now in quarantine.

The schools which have shut are mainly in Gyeonggi Province, where the first case of MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) – a man who had been to Saudi Arabia – was reported.

A closure notice at an elementary school in Seoul

They include dozens of elementaries and kindergartens near the hospital where the first death was reported. They will be closed for at least a week

South Korea's education minister Hwang Woo-yea said the measures were needed to prevent the disease spreading to schools. Many students have been given lessons about the MERS virus.

But he said yesterday that a mock college entrance exam scheduled for today at all high schools will go ahead as planned.

Students at a special class about the MERS virus

MERS is in the same family of viruses as SARS (severe actue respiratory syndrome), which caused the deaths of more than 700 people in a 2003 outbreak.

It can cause fever, breathing problems, pneumonia and kidney failure and has a death rate of 27% of those who contract it, according to the World Health Organization. But most of those have underlying medical conditions.

The WHO said the outbreak is the largest reported outside Saudi Arabia, where the disease first emerged in 2012 and the vast majority of cases have occurred.